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Noah Smith

Best Time to Reopen? Economists Are Just Guessing

Their mathematical skills are formidable, but toss out the dicey assumptions and things get squishy".

Sign of the times.

Sign of the times.

Photographer: Jenny Evans/Getty Images AsiaPac

The U.S. is being roiled by the debate over how long to keep stay-at-home orders -- commonly known as lockdowns -- in place. Epidemiological experts tend to believe that although some activities can resume, most shutdowns should remain in place until the coronavirus epidemic has been brought under control and suppression regimes -- testing, contact tracing and other preventive measures -- can be put in place. Based on current trajectories, that could take many places another month and even longer for a few. Conservatives, meanwhile, have mostly begun to agitate for immediate reopening. 

The question of when and what to open up is complicated. The uncertainties surrounding the virus itself are one reason. A second is that it requires balancing human safety against economic costs. Proponents of continued lockdown are often horrified that supporters of reopening would sacrifice tens or potentially hundreds of thousands of lives so that everyone can enjoy the usual pre-pandemic comforts. And supporters of reopening rightfully point out that the country makes similarly deadly choices every day without a second thought -- for example, by tolerating cars, which kill tens of thousands a year but are critical to the functioning of the economy.